Essential Guide for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that anxiety disorders are the most common health concern in the U.S., with more than 40 million American adults, or 19.1% of the population, suffering from an anxiety disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in six American adults will experience depression in their life; that’s about 16 million American adults each year. 

These conditions are particularly common among young adults entering college for the first time and dealing with the adjustment to life away from home, the stress of a rigorous class load, being financially independent for the first time, and so forth. But the good news is, if you’re a college student suffering from anxiety, depression, or any other psychiatric disorder, help is available. In this post, we’ll go over college accommodations for anxiety and college accommodations for depression. Keep reading to learn more.

What Are Psychiatric Disabilities? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines psychiatric disabilities as:

“A mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual; a record of impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.’ 

Most Common Psychiatric Disabilities Among College Students 

The most common psychiatric disabilities that affect college students include:

Anxiety

recent study found that 88% of college students experience moderate to severe stress, with 44% displaying signs of moderate to severe anxiety.

Anxiety is by far the most prevalent psychiatric disability impacting college students.

Signs of anxiety in college students include:

  • Constantly feeling nervous or uneasy
  • Uncontrollable worry
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Being unable to concentrate and keep focus
  • Difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep
  • Missing classes and/or assignments
  • Isolating oneself from friends, family, classmates, and organized group activities/extracurriculars
  • Intrusive thoughts 

Depression

Statistics show that students’ mental health has been steadily declining since the Coivd-19 pandemic. A recent survey found that more than one-third of college students suffered from depression or anxiety in 2020.

Unfortunately, the rates of depression among college students did not improve after they returned to campus. A follow-up study from the spring of 2021 found that between 42 and 56 percent of college students were at risk for clinical depression. That’s compared to about 35 percent of participants before the pandemic.

Symptoms of depression in college students include:

  • Negative emotions, including sadness and hopelessness 
  • Irregular eating and sleeping patterns
  • A sudden disinterest in extracurriculars and other activities they used to enjoy
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness 
  • Suicidal thoughts 

There are a few risk factors that may trigger depression in college students:

  • Leaving the comforts of home for the first time
  • Relationship problems and break-ups
  • Sexual assault
  • Difficulty making new friends
  • Drug and/or alcohol use
  • Family history of depression
  • Fear of disappointing parents

College students who are at the highest risk of depression and anxiety include:

  • Minority students
  • Female students
  • Low-income students
  • LGBTQ+ students
  • Students who are caregivers for children or adult family members

ADHD

The number of college students with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is also growing across America, increasing from about 2% two decades ago to 11.6% today. The good news is that as the prevalence of ADHD among college students grows, more and more institutions are hopping on board to make accommodations for these students to succeed.

Addiction

For many students, college is the ultimate sign of freedom. With that freedom often comes experimenting with drugs and alcohol, which can, unfortunately, trigger addiction. One recent study found that nearly half of all surveyed college students met the criteria for at least one substance use disorder.

Some of the top reasons college students begin using — and abusing — drugs and alcohol include:

  • Curiosity.
  • Binge drinking culture.
  • Looking for ways to deal with the stress associated with college, including academic performance, social life, financial issues, and family.
  • A family history of substance abuse and addiction.
  • The belief that drinking and doing drugs is a normal part of college.
  • Peer pressure, including fraternity and sorority activities/hazing.
  • The ease of availability of drugs and alcohol on campus.

Eating Disorders

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorders are most common among people between the ages of 18 and 21, which estimates that between 10-20% of women and 4-10% of men in college suffer from an eating disorder.

The most common eating disorders among college students include:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Orthorexia 

Challenges That Come With Psychiatric Disabilities in College

The adjustment from high school and the comforts of living at home with mom, dad, siblings, and Fido to living independently at college are enough of an adjustment to cause anxiety among anybody. But, that adjustment is much harder on students already dealing with psychiatric issues.

Often, these students are thrown into a new environment without a therapist, counselor, or resources that helped them navigate their psychiatric disability in high school.

Unfortunately, universities do not follow ADA laws, meaning there are no IEP programs or counselors available, like many students with psychiatric disabilities benefit from in high school. This leaves many new college students feeling left high and dry with no resources to help them.

However, accommodations for psychiatric disabilities, including college accommodations for anxiety and college accommodations for depression, are available. Students just need to ask.

College Accommodations for Psychiatric Disorders 

Let’s take a look at how colleges across the country make accommodations for students with anxiety and depression:

College Accommodations for Anxiety

Some common college accommodations for anxiety include:

  • Letting the student take their exams in a quiet room or even in their dorm room to reduce test anxiety.
  • Extending the time for test-taking to ease the stress and panic of having to complete the test in a short amount of time.
  • Being able to choose their seat for the exam. Some students with anxiety may prefer sitting near an exit or in the back alone.
  • Alternative homework options for students with high anxiety who cannot complete tests because they trigger their anxiety too much. 

College Accommodations for Depression

Some common college accommodations for depression include:

  • Avoiding traumatic triggers if a project topic or assignment triggers memories of a student’s previous traumas, they will be assigned a different topic. 
  • Special allowances for making up missed work. If a student with depression misses class, projects, and exams during a depressive episode, they will be given extra time to get caught up on all classwork.
  • Pre-arranged or frequent breaks during class or exams to help with focus.

 How to Know if Your College Offers Accommodations for Psychiatric Disabilities

It is your responsibility to tell your school about what accommodations you need because of your psychiatric disability. It’s important to make your needs known to the school’s disability services office as soon as possible so you can start working with them on reasonable accommodations.

If you are in the application process, now is the perfect time to reach out to disability services offices at different schools to find the one best matched to your disability and that will offer you the accommodations you need. 

Tips for Students With Psychiatric Disabilities

If you are a college student dealing with a psychiatric disability, here are some tips for a positive college experience:

  • Take advantage of your school’s counseling center: Most campuses offer counseling services for students for free. These services include therapy, online assessments, and mental health services.
  • Use the health and wellness center: Most campuses also provide health services for their students, where you can find a walk-in clinic, primary care services, and wellness programs.
  • Student support groups: One of the most important things to know as a student dealing with a psychiatric disability is that you are not alone. On-campus student support groups can help you connect with your peers who are going through similar situations. Finding a core support group can help you navigate all of the challenges that college life will throw your way while feeling supported and getting advice from people going through similar situations.

Some other tips to help ease your anxiety and depression in college include:

  • Get active. Even a 30-minute walk or fun extracurricular activity that you enjoy can do wonders for your mental health and stress levels.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Prioritize sleep.
  • Limit alcohol, drug, and caffeine intake, which can aggravate symptoms of psychiatric disability.

Additional Resources  

Keep the following resources handy for quick reference and guidance:

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